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Openness in executions

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  1. Freedom of Information
This issue of The News Media & The Law touches on many questions about the future of newsgathering: the cover…

This issue of The News Media & The Law touches on many questions about the future of newsgathering: the cover story looks at the increasing efforts to keep information about executions secret, and others cover escalating fees for FOIA requests, continuing efforts to keep cameras out of the Supreme Court, and the use of hyperlinks in news stories.

Undoubtedly, the most newsworthy issue is the one that ended up on the cover. States that impose the death penalty have found themselves in a quandry, as the drugs they have traditionally used in lethal injections become harder to obtain, primarily due to European restrictions on exports of the drugs for such purposes. As our story reports, the consequences are real: executions do not appear to be going well, with some prisoners remaining conscious and talking of a burning pain when the execution is already underway.

The issue we're covering, however, is not about whether the death penalty is right or wrong, or whether and how executions should be performed. Instead, it is about the fact that these questions have become a clear matter of public interest, no matter which political position one takes, and there is no doubt that the public has the right to know what's going on and what is being done in its name.

If the "compounding pharmacies" that have replaced the European drug companies are not making the same drugs, the public needs to know whether the replacements are humane and effective. If the particular pharmacy has had health issues before, the continued use of that facility is relevant to the public and needs to be revealed.

Some of the answers to these questions will bolster arguments of those who believe the death penalty — even lethal injections, which have replaced gas chambers, electric chairs and even firing squads as a more humane way to execute a prisoner — will always constitute "cruel and unusual" punishment. Other answers may support the other side, leading some to conclude that the system works. Either way, the information should be released.

That is why the Reporters Committee has sought the release of much of this information through open records laws, and why, when those requests are denied, we will take the matter to court. In Missouri, we filed a lawsuit with a local reporter and the state ACLU chapter in mid-May to extract some of this information from the prison system. And as denials continue elsewhere, more suits will follow.

Transparency should always be the objective, particularly when a lives are literally on the line.